Recently I met a number of families that changed my life, I mean literally, changed my life. I’ve already shared about Mansi in a previous note and many of you asked to learn more about others in her area. I was overwhelmed with your responses of love, support and compassion.
Many of you know that in my day-to-day social work I see many difficult situations. I’ve written about many. But Harju’s case is one of the most challenging I’ve ever seen. I am astounded by her will to live and her ability to push through seemingly insurmountable human and physical barriers to care for her grandchildren. She and Mansi show, without words, the human Spirit.
Harju is in her late 60s. She is a widow and lives on a remote hilltop in a tribal village area in South Rajasthan’s desert hills. Please allow me to me paint a picture… Imagine a place that you can not reach by motorized vehicle. In your mind, please sit there for a moment, imagine the wind rushing through the hills. You worry about snakes entering your hut so you sleep on make shift cots. The silence is palpable and isolation from power, technology or emergency help is complete. Imagine needing water and walking through the dark across three hilltops. As you lay awake you might decide whether it is less dangerous to go thirsty. Welcome to Harju’s life.
Three children’s lives depend on Harju for survival and she often does not have the strength to carry the clay pot water on her head. She is mostly blind in both eyes and her feet are permanently turned after years of hard work and lack of nutrition. Luckily, one day before I took these photos, she was given a free operation on her right eye.
I’ve never seen people without even the hope of food. The first day we met her she had a handful of flower and two teaspoons of oil. She was painfully aware that she could not even receive her government rations because she didn’t have the 15 rupees to take a jeep 3km to pick up the flour and oil. This… is just a glimpse of her life.
It is tough to describe to you what it feels like to interview Harju her home. It is a feeling of inspiration, devastation and wonder.
Let me tell you why I was interviewing her. Here in Rajasthan there is a scheme that financially helps people who are caring for their kin due to unexpected circumstances. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, widows etc. can avail of this scheme if they have the proper documentation. Harju, though eligible for this scheme for the past 5 years has not received a single rupee. I was consulting for an organization that asked me to get a real view of what is happening for caretakers like Harju. The task is to help build caregiver capacity in these most tribal and vulnerable areas.
Back to Harju’s story…
Five years ago, while his hand dangled from his cot late at night, her son was bit by a cobra snake. Due to their remote location and limited ability to access health care, her son died days afterward. His wife then left her 3 children and married another man (a typical practice in this village). Harju, a widow, was left with the care of Anita, Rahul and Naresh. Naresh, at the time, was only a few months old. She explained that she would’t do anything else. She trusts God and cares for the ones she loves. For Harju, it is not a decision at all, it is her duty and privilege to care for these children.
As I hoped to learn about their ‘childhood’ moments, I asked a friend to ask Anita what games she plays. She is now 9 years old and after some shy moments she explained that she does not go out to play because the goats cannot be left alone. Anita gets water, cares for her grandmother and cooks all the food for her family. Her smile and light are the some of the only reminders that she is a child.
Harju, although devastated not be educating the children, has made difficult decisions. Decisions that none of us can judge. we know where the next meal is coming from. When I visited a couple weeks ago the 7 year old had gone out in search of work in a nearby village. Please think about the 7 year olds you know. How many of them are looking for work in order to support their household? Tough to even imagine, right?
I could go on and on about this family, but I’ll stop here.
I write this story not to glorify their troubles. I write it to share with you some of the most extreme cases in this world. It is almost unfathomable for me to think about what will happen when Harju dies. It will produce one of the many child headed households here in India and throughout Africa.
I hope that this story moves you to share a message of encouragement, gratitude or hope for Harju. I’ll share anything with her that you write here in comments. As I wrote in the beginning of this message, I am forever changed by meeting her.
After posting Mansi’s story many wrote to me asking how they can help. I want you to know that just being quiet and appreciating Harju is helping her. I’m taking steps here to help them use existing resources to survive. Sustainable help can not come from ‘outside’. It might sound harsh but it is a reality. Last week I did a clothing drive in Udaipur and we brought warm and cold weather clothes to the children and Harju; two sets of clothing each. We also provided food that will sustain them until the government scheme money is available. We are actively working to help Harju get the support she needs from the government.
During our talk I looked her in the eye and thanked her for being a strong woman. I sat with her and explained that she deserves to hear how beautiful her care for her grandchildren is for this world. She explained that the children waited for me to return with the clothing I promised during my last visit. For a family that doesn’t see a lot of joy, I hope these moments of hope will carry them forward.
Much respect to you all from Udaipur